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A Quintessential California Wine Story

Spottswoode Estate stands the test of time
Spottswoode's Queen Anne–inspired Victorian mansion was built in 1885.
Photo by: Courtesy of Spottswoode Estate
Spottswoode's Queen Anne–inspired Victorian mansion was built in 1885.

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 8:00am ET

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's new lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.

With its history, Spottswoode represents a link to Napa's seemingly distant backwater past, when land was easy to buy and jug wines were made from grapes like Green Hungarian. Spottswoode also represents the new California, a family-run estate that makes a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon fetching $225 a bottle. If you can't appreciate Spottswoode's journey, you can't appreciate California wine.

The property is a 45-acre farm on the western benchland just south of Spring Mountain in St. Helena. Beth Novak Milliken's father, Jack Novak, bought the property in 1972, for $4,000 an acre. Napa vineyards can cost 100 times that now.

"He was a doctor, and our parents and my four siblings were living in San Diego," says Novak Milliken as we walk the property's bucolic spread, replete with soaring palm trees around a stately Victorian. "They didn't know anything about wine. My dad just wanted to drive a tractor and my mom wanted to garden. And the two of them wanted a house big enough for five kids."

The property and its vineyards date to the late 19th century; it picked up the Spottswoode name in 1910. On it were Petite Sirah, Napa Gamay (Valdiguié), Colombard and Green Hungarian vines; the family sold the grapes off to the Gallo operation at first. Jack Novak began replanting, shifting to Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, and picked up Duckhorn, Mondavi and Heitz as customers. But Jack passed suddenly in 1977. The family soldiered on, no small feat for a nascent grapegrowing operation with limited cash flow. Along the way, they hired a young winemaker named Tony Soter, who in 1982 helped them bottle their first estate Cabernet in a custom-crush facility.

"We had nothing to reference," says Novak Milliken. "It was France and the wines of Bordeaux and that was it. So Tony really put us on the road that defines us today. It's why we pick ripe, but don't aim for overripe. It's why we use French oak, but only 60 percent new, and so on."

Soter began farming organically in 1988, among the first in Napa to do so (Spottswoode was just the second Napa estate to be certified organic). With no in-house winery (there wasn't the cash flow to support the investment), the wine was made at a custom-crush facility until 1998. Soter stayed through '91 as head winemaker, and as a consultant through '97.

Spottswoode went much the same way Napa did in the 1980s: Those 1977 plantings were all on AxR1 rootstock, and the phylloxera louse loomed large, forcing another replanting. Today the estate has 30 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 4.5 of Cabernet Franc, 1.5 of Petit Verdot and 1 of Sauvignon Blanc. A property across the road was added and, eventually, a winery facility was built, giving Novak Milliken complete control over the production.

Winemaker Aron Weinkauf has been at the estate since 2006, working as head winemaker since the 2010 vintage, and today Spottswoode makes around 4,000 cases annually of Sauvignon Blanc (using some purchased fruit) along with 2,000 cases of its Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon, which combines estate and purchased fruit. The top wine is the estate Cabernet, which tops out at around 4,000 cases.

For my visit, Novak Milliken opened a vertical of the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, covering 2010 through 2016, providing an ideal look at the consistency of style and quality here, as well as the wines' slow and subtle evolution over time. There's a delicacy to the Spottswoode Cabernet, but the wine is no pushover. Sneaky long and with tensile strength, it's a yoga pose held for minutes, in stark contrast with the stereotypical Napa Cab's bodybuilder reps. It has a uniquely pure feel, and while it's in a less "obvious" style, its ageability is clear. The wine, like the estate, has the reach to connect Napa's past to its future.

WineSpectator.com members: Get James Molesworth’s tasting notes for seven vintages of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

Follow James Molesworth on Instagram at @jmolesworth1, and on Twitter at @jmolesworth1.

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